Mental Floss

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.  ~Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

It’s six AM and I’m sitting in a lifeguard chair as early-bird lap swimmers make their wet way up and down the pool lanes. I try to make the best use of my time while in the chair, but I still have to keep a close watch on the swimmers.  So of course, I practice. Even though my trumpet is not in my hands I get a lot of work done and still do my job. Besides, playing trumpet early in the morning won’t make you any friends, even if (especially if?) you’re playing reveille. Today’s post is about a practical technique that all experts use, whether they’re musicians, athletes, or surgeons. You can (and should!) use them to improve, too. I’m talking about mental practice.

I’m fascinated by the psychology and the theory behind practice, and realize that this fascination is often reflected in what I write about on this blog. This isn’t always easy to apply in a practical way. Sorry about that. I will attempt to put up two posts each week: one more philosophical and another that is practical, something you can use. And if I can only do one, I’ll make it practical. Philosophy and theory is important, but can be quite different from actual practice. As Yogi Berra said (actually this is variously attributed, but it sounds like something Yogi would say), “The difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference and in practice, there is.” So this is this week’s post on mental practice.

As a lifeguard, I would practice scale fingerings and softly sing the solfege syllables that went along with them. FYI, the solfege for the major scale is do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do (Yes, Sound of Music stuff). When I go up the chromatic scale (that is by half steps, or hitting all consecutive keys on the piano), it would be do, di, re, ri, mi, fa, fi, sol, si, la, li, ti, do. On the way up, notes are raised using sharps. On the way down, flats are used, so on the way down chromatically, you’d have do, ti, te, la, le, sol, se, fa mi, me, re, ra, do. Anyway, I’d go through all keys as I sat there watching swimmers. And I’d do scale patterns with solfege, too: thirds, fourths, rolling thirds, and anything else I was working on at the time. This is just one kind of mental practice.

Published studies into mental practice go way back to 1892, but you’d be right if you thought musicians and artists and athletes and all other experts have known about this (and used it) for a long time. A 1985 study of college trombonists (Ross) measured improvement on a piece of music after using 5 different practice methods: regular practice, mental practice only, both regular and mental practice, mental practice with moving the slide, and no practice at all. The good news is that everyone improved (yes, even the ones who didn’t practice at all were marginally better the 2nd time around). Those who improved the most were the ones who combined physical and mental practice. Second-most improved were those who did the physical practice only, and third-best were those who did mental practice with slide movement.

So what is mental practice? Another paper by McPherson (a noted scholar of music practice and self-regulated learning) and Zimmerman showed that successful self-regulated musicians used the following mental practice strategies: chanting rhythms, singing their parts, counting, fingering silently (though I would add that you should hear the music in your head while fingering), and isolate difficult or problem sections to practice mentally. This isn’t the full list by any means. Use your own imagination and needs/weaknesses  to create your own mental practice routines. Work with your teacher. Be aware of gaps in your playing and apply mental practice to them.

If you’re a brass player, you simply can’t physically keep the horn on your face for an entire practice session, and mental practice is a great way to give your chops a rest but continue making progress. In fact, mental practice is crucial to making good use of the practice session time no matter what you play. Break up your practice sessions using the above techniques (and remember to GO SLOWLY so what you do is error-free). In future posts, I’ll break these down and give you more specifics. My trumpet teacher, George Recker, used to say, “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it,” and he was right. Start by singing a part you’re struggling with: use a piano or other instrument to get those pitches in your head. If you aren’t a singer, try whistling. Use your down time either during your practice session, waiting in line at the DMV, or during some other boring task. Do some mental practice. You’ll get better faster.

Have fun and good luck with your practice!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


McPherson, G. E., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Self-regulation of musical learning: A social cognitive perspective. In R. Colwell & C. Richardson (Eds.), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 327-347). New York: Oxford University Press.

Ross, S. L. (1985). The effectiveness of mental practice in improving the performance of college trombonists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 33(221-230).

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